What’s Next? And Then What?

Order and Predictability in the Child’s Life

Years ago when I took my Primary training, the assistant trainer presented us with a picture of the word ‘chaos’ being slowly re-formed into the word ‘order’. I would love to locate that diagram but alas, it is, paradoxically, lost in the chaos of old notes and articles and thoughts jotted on papers still too meaningful to toss. Yet it remains in my mind’s eye as a reflection of the young child’s journey from the chaos of a short life of acquisition of myriad images from an adult’s world to the beginnings of an ordered self-creation acquired through interaction with the Prepared Environment of the Children’s House. It is a reflection of the creative powers of the child herself.

Fast forward several years later to a Children’s House in which I served as Guide, eagerly taking a friend on a walk through the environment. Stepping just inside the front door, my friend exclaimed, “My goodness! I’ve never seen such order!” I wasn’t sure if she was being complimentary or alluding to a possibility of an unhealthy obsession on my part!

In retrospect, it is understandable that this brief visit to my well-planned Children’s House proved to be a startling experience for my friend. Adults are often capable of existing with and compensating for the lack of order that can happen in their daily lives. They may even thrive on the creative juices that flow from chaos. But a young child must have order in her world. As Maria Montessori stated “…but the small child cannot live in disorder. Order is for him a need of life; and if this order is upset, it disturbs him to the point of illness. His protests, which seem like mere caprices, are really vital acts of defense.”

It was with the understanding of the child’s need for order in the environment that this early Children’s House, and all Children’s Houses I subsequently guided, became reflections of a purposeful obsession with order. Because the environment is meticulously cared for, prepared, and ordered daily – from the materials on the shelves to the order in each of the exercises – the child is able to create an internal order of all that she has previously experienced. She takes from the external order of the environment and incarnates it into her very being. This means that order becomes a vital part of her. She cannot reflect internal order without external order because her perfect child’s absorbent mind brings the world into her being without filters and she actually becomes the environment in which she lives.

Montessori, through her keen physician’s ability for observation, discerned within young children a persistent love of order. She classified this love of order as one of the sensitive periods for the young child – a sort of ‘window of opportunity that a young child exhibits through her intense interest and remains fixated upon until satisfied. Once the need has been met developmentally for this attribute (in this case, order), this particular window closes shut and another opens. In this way, unconsciously, the child absorbs with laser focus exactly what her innate development (her inner guide) directs her to absorb, and the Prepared Environment is ordered to support these acquisitions.

Montessori pinpointed the initial appearance of the child’s sensitive period for order at approximately two years of age and observed that it continues for about two years, being most pronounced in the third year of life. Her understanding is now reflected in the orderly environments of Children’s Houses all around the world, where order reigns and everything is selected and placed for the child’s benefit alone.

Over years of experience, I have observed this strong sensitive period in the youngest children and have seen it wane as they approach the end of their three years in the Children’s House. The three-year-old is the one that expects the small button frame to be in the exact spot each time, while the 5-year-old accepts it at any position on the frame stand. I also discovered that a structured, prepared environment can be momentarily disquieting for new children who have not experienced the type of support for the development of order reflected in the Prepared Environment. The three-year-old will usually recover quickly and take to the environment like the proverbial duck to water precisely because his sense of order is being supported. The older child often requires a longer adjustment period and may well view the Prepared Environment as restrictive until he becomes absorbed in the work and begins to respond to the order and predictability of this new environment.

So how do we reconcile the child’s need for order and the adult’s often more casual approach to order in environments outside the Children’s House, such as the child’s home, and what are the benefits of considering a more orderly and structured approach? And is it necessary for home life to replicate the Prepared Environment?

Sometimes we adults may feel a certain disdain for overt order, feeling that the child’s sense of spontaneity and creativity might be compromised; or perhaps being adults without a strong sense of order ourselves, we may simply be unaware of the child’s innate need for order and fail to notice the results of its absence – this was certainly the case for me before I received my Montessori training. However, I now recognize through experience that when a strong sense of order prevails it produces calm, predictability, and a sense of well-being for the child. Rather than a novelty, she craves routine as the foundation of her daily life. This becomes evident when we recognize the child’s love for and insistence on reading the same book endlessly or when he cannot really go to sleep until his favorite blanket or toy is with him. Her very being is able to relax when order prevails – the book is read and the bunny is tucked in with her.

I also began to recognize that the Montessori experience is most successful for those children whose home life complements and supports the child’s school experiences. Replicating the Prepared Environment in the home is neither advised nor expected. The child already receives the benefits of the materials through the expertise of the trained adult in the Children’s House, the Guide, who knows the purpose of the particular material/s and how to connect the child to it. A Pink Tower in the home will guarantee a lack of interest in it in the Prepared Environment and the opportunity to make the most of its purpose will have been lost. But there are definite ways in which the home can offer orders and its partner, routine. The overt order needed by a young child during these early years might very well feel overwhelming to our adult sensibilities, but our choice to augment or change our own normal adult habits for this brief interlude in our lives can make all the difference for our child now and in the future. Even small steps and incremental changes can produce the sort of environment the child needs and this is the commitment we wisely make when we choose to bring up children. An example is taking conscientious steps such as supporting the child in the selection of clothing by making available only those pieces of clothing that are seasonal and reflective of the school’s guidelines in the Parent Handbook. Providing the child with only appropriate choices is illustrative of what a parent can do to organize a home life that coordinates with the child’s school experience.

With these thoughts in mind, let’s consider together blocks of time throughout the day in which we can support the child’s need for pleasant, cheerful order and routine. Perhaps these periods can be listed as:

  • morning preparations for school
  • re-entering the home after school
  • preparing for an evening meal
  • preparing for bath and bedtime

Breaking this down further and taking a moment to think through the evening mealtime preparations, for example, we can tease out the degree of order and structure that can be reasonably added to the family life that will support a cheerful, pleasant, and organized end of the day:

  • have we pre-planned the meal and purchased the necessary items?
  • is the mealtime consistent?
  • is the whole family together for mealtime on a regular basis?
  • what role does each family member play in meal preparation? Is there a role for even the youngest? Are these roles clear and modeled for the child?
  • is there a ritual for gathering for the meal that is comforting and predictable for the child, perhaps a song, a grace, a taking of turns in conversation?
  • is there a plan for cleaning up after the meal, one in which each family member is prepared to participate?
  • are there distractions that interrupt the family cohesiveness and the calm of the meal shared together? What are those distractions and how can they be disbanded in favor of a quiet family meal?
  • is the child to be already bathed and dressed for bedtime before mealtime or is this done after the meal? Is this consistent and predictable for the child?

Questions of this nature can help us understand and meet the challenge of providing a supportive environment that will offer the child the routine she needs. A previous article, The Art Of Creating the Perfect Arrival, presents a step-by-step process for establishing routine and order for the start of a great day for the child. It can serve as a sort of guide in organizing the other blocks of time for a predictable, healthy routine.

The Child’s Guide is an important source for ideas and ways to connect the child’s home life to her Children’s House experiences. Questions and conversations at parent/guide conferences can begin the process. We are also fortunate to have many additional systems of support in place at our school as parents and school staff work together as a team to understand how to make these bridges of connection: the slideshow presentation of The Montessori Home Environment; parenting/staff classes such as How to Talk So Children Will Listen and Listen So Kids Will Talk; the Say What You See parenting series; an entire series of new and potential parent information presentations; and home visits and parenting classes for the Youngest Children. The school’s parent lending library is a bounty of books that can be read at leisure and are full of ideas and suggestions. One such book, At Home with Montessori by Patricia Oriti, is an established and iconic source for setting up the home environment for the young child. And ‘seasoned’ Montessori parents are a rich source of ideas that have been tried and proven.

The sensitive period for the order is very brief but the outcomes can be tremendous. As surely as there is order in the universe, so it is in the small child. He finds it in an established and predictable routine and in possibilities that are hidden as potential within his own being. With a firm commitment to what is best for the child, the home and school life can be supremely instrumental in the development of an orderly being, one whose present and future life will be well-served by a cheerful and balanced order. The early years of the child’s life are the foundation for the man or woman to come, just as the solid foundation for a new home determines its secure structure. This solid foundation of order can serve the child well in an increasingly chaotic world.

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